Photos by Andrea Milo
Witches and vampires have been very good to Anne Rice. Since Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976, the New Orleans native has sold more than 100 million books worldwide and inspired legions of devoted fans with her dark, erotically charged tales. She’s become a fixture on the bestseller list and several of her twenty seven novels have been made into feature films or miniseries–a television series is also in the works for her books on the Mayfair Witches as well.
So why after decades of success has the Queen of the Undead decided to focus all of her writing on the King of Kings? That’s right, following her return to the Catholic Church in 1998–after a nearly 40-year absence–Rice “consecrated” her future work to Jesus. Her new novel, Christ the Lord-Out of Egypt, told from the perspective of Jesus at age seven, is the first volume in a planned series of novels about the life of Christ. Of course stories about celebrities who have thrown off their wicked, worldly ways and found God are all too familiar, but Rice is different. The sixty-four year old’s return to faith is neither a stunt nor an attempt to break with her past. To the contrary, as her devoutly Catholic father often pointed out to her before his death in 1991, throughout her career Rice has been unconsciously working her way back through the church’s history century by century.
As she’s done with all of her previous books, Rice meticulously researched her subject and the historical context of her story. The fruits of her extensive study–which continues to this day–are abundantly evident throughout Christ the Lord as well as in our conversation. Along the way she’s also developed some strongly critical opinions about the level of some Jesus scholarship that she considers biased.
But it is not simply her faith life that has undergone a transformation. In 2002, while she was deep into research for this book, her husband of 41 years, poet and painter Stan Rice, died of a brain tumor. Also, few months before Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, she left the city to which she had become synonymous and relocated to La Jolla, California.
On a recent, mild Sunday afternoon in November, Rice braved the overflow traffic caused by the New York City marathon and came across town to BustedHalo’s offices for an interview with longtime contributor Tony Rossi and editor-in-chief Bill McGarvey. Over the course of their hour-long conversation, Rice spoke candidly about subjects ranging from her return to faith and the writing of her new book to homosexuality and the Church’s loss of credibility as a community of love.
BustedHalo: With this book you are making a very public statement about your return to the Catholic faith. Did you have qualms or fears about how it would be received?
Anne Rice: I was terrified, but I felt like I had no choice. It was what I had committed myself to do. I can’t keep it in. It is completely natural to talk about it and explain the level of commitment [I have], which is total. I was obsessed with this topic for a long, long time. I really think the idea of it goes back to childhood. For instance the devotion I had as a child to Jesus and the devotion I felt to the whole worldview as a Catholic, all of that came back when I went back to the church in 1998 and this is the inevitable result, really.
BH: Was there anything that spurred your conversion? You talked about sitting in a church…
AR: Well, it was a gradual thing. I was doing a lot of research and did work my way back in history. I started in the 19th century with my first book Interview with a Vampire I was going back and back. I was powerfully curious about the first century. Powerfully curious about how the Jews managed to survive. I read tons of archeology about ancient Sumer and ancient Egypt. I began to really seriously think about this. How did they manage to survive? What did it? I wanted to answer all of these questions. I essentially read my way back into the church.
The first thing I observed was that there was no rational explanation for the survival of the Jews. According to what I read they should have been destroyed. I thought this is amazing and began wondering how Christianity began. I started to read about the first century and during this time had an overwhelming desire to go back to church. I didn’t believe that there wasn’t a God anymore. I was pretending to believe that. As a matter of fact, it began to seem really arrogant and cocky that there wasn’t a God. The explanations just didn’t hold water (laughs).
I went through a period of about six months where I couldn’t see how I could go back. I had too many unanswered questions theologically and morally. It then occurred to me that you don’t have to resolve these questions so just go back and trust. God can do anything.’
BH: You said that you were “Powerfully curious about how the Jews managed to survive.” Did you consider Judaism when you were coming back to faith?
AR: Well, obviously they have a great role to play in history and obviously they are still playing it, to me they are the children of God. Along with everyone else they have a special role to play. God is not going to break his promise no matter what they do. God will not break certain promises. I’ve always been kind of in awe of the Jews I’ve known for their innate spirituality and their values. They are exceptional people. I did feel drawn to them during the years I was away from the church and there were times I considered converting. But, I’m really a Catholic.
I am always astonished when I run into a Christian who doesn’t know anything about our Jewish heritage. I didn’t grow up in an anti-Semitic environment, Jews were just never mentioned. It just didn’t come up. The only Jews I ever knew as a little girl were orthodox and we had great respect for them. We could hear the cantor singing in his house. My mother was in awe of them. I was in awe of them. They were special people. They were holy people. They were people like us who took everything seriously.
BH: In your author’s note you mention that you were frightened that your faith you would have to relegate your faith to a non-intellectual place in your life. That seems to be a problem for a lot of people. Many people seem to believe that, in order to have faith, you have to “check your brain at the door.” How did you resolve that?
AR: It was the opposite for me. The more I reasoned, the more I saw it and studied the more it made sense to me that Jesus Christ was also God. It seemed very clear. I didn’t see any other explanation in history for what happened. I went back to church and went to confession.
BH: It was a two-hour first confession, right? (laughs)
AR: Yeah, (laughs) the first one in 30 years. And I told the priest there are things I don’t know what to say. He was very accepting and we talked for over two hours. Of course this was an entirely new church for me. I had to learn mass in English. I hadn’t been to mass in all of those years except for maybe a funeral. At first I was kind of horrified by the English mass. Now I’ve come to love it. I still grieve for the Latin and the Greek. Yesterday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral I loved that they sang parts in Latin. I still have my little daily missal from the Latin days.
For several years after I came back I didn’t think I could write the autobiography of Jesus Christ because I’m a believer again and won’t have the freedom to do it. I was unable to put it aside. I kept thinking about it. I kept being more conflicted about my writing in general. The metaphors of the witches and vampires were no longer working for me. These were metaphors for an outsider, a person who couldn’t find the light of God. Everything had changed for me. I believed it. I was talking this over in church with God explaining that I wished I could devote my entire life to you, but I have things to do and people to take care of. Suddenly it occurred to me, ‘what if I do dedicate everything to you? What happens (laughs)?’ So I said that I consecrate everything to you. I walked out of that church a different person. I didn’t even know it for a little while. But the depression of eight years just lifted.
This was in 2002. I vowed I would never write anything again that wasn’t completely for God. As it turned out I had to finish the last of the Vampire Chronicles, but the book was almost done. Almost immediately I began the research for Christ the Lord and that was a great adventure.
BH: Do you think the church has been misrepresented as being anti-intellectual?
AR: Well, I think that the church by its very nature is a great place to be for an intellectual because we have 2000 years of incredible tradition and theology. Being a Catholic is like roaming into a mountain range that is filled with caves and every cave has Dead Sea Scrolls and treasures and artifacts. But at the same time, being an authoritarian, orthodox religion it is always struggling to favor one theologian and condemn another at any time. The best we can do as Catholics is to step back and realize the church is made of humans who are not perfect and that it moves very, very slowly, trying to conserve what is really good and not getting carried away with the panics in the moment, which are always going on. All we have to do is look back a few hundred years and find Galileo under house arrest for espousing the theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Christians were afraid that the authority of scripture would be shaken if this were true. Now we know that authority of scripture is not shaken by those things. It hasn’t been shaken by DNA or the double helix. It simply makes more manifest that God has infinite power.